Initial reactions to the news that Jordan may be joining the Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC), a small cartel of oil-producing Arab states, were mostly expressed in a tongue-in-cheek manner. The most common was that Jordanians should acquire a taste to wearing the white dishdasha, a traditional white robe worn by nationals of the Arabia Gulf. Others spoke of cheap gas and giant American SUVs becoming the new symbol of our lifestyle. There were the skeptics, who believe that the whole thing is a political stunt - a desert mirage.
But there is no smoke without fire. In spite of very little information released to the public, the GCC leaders did extend an invitation to Jordan to join their exclusive club last month. Jordan, it has been revealed, had first submitted a request for membership in 1988. Only now did the Gulf states take it seriously, most likely as a reaction to the seismic events that had swept through our region earlier this year.
Now comes the hard part, which is negotiating the deal and that could take years, some say up to a decade. But in the meantime there is optimism in the air at a time when Jordan is going through tough economic and political challenges. The deal, observers say, is based on the fact that Jordan, which has a long history of security cooperation with the GCC, can do a lot to safeguard the stability of these nations, especially in the face of external threats. On the other hand, Gulf leaders are aware of the strategic importance of Jordan, which has the longest border with Israel, and supporting economically it will undoubtedly reflect positively on their own national security during these turbulent times.
So it is a win-win exchange. Jordan already has hundreds of thousands of its nationals working in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. They are mostly skilled and white-collar professionals who have become the driving force behind key sectors in IT, banking, public administration, education, and media, among others. It goes without saying that expat remittances are an important source of foreign currency inflow for Jordan.
Jordanians know Gulf culture well either through actual presence in that region or due to personal contacts with GGC nationals, and their own expats, who visit the kingdom in summer. And while they belong to the Levant, geographically, historically and culturally, Jordanians are not detached from the Gulf region. Thanks to Gulf-based media powerhouses, Jordanians are often exposed to vernacular drama, culture and events. It's not like that Jordan will be joining a South Asian club of nations with which it has nothing in common.
But if Jordan becomes a full member, whereby its nationals can travel without visas, work and set up businesses in the GCC region, then this will be a major development for this debt-ridden kingdom. The cultural spillover will work both ways and so will the political and social mindset. Some in Jordan are fearful that by becoming members they will have to sacrifice their political openness and diversity, not to mention their slow progress toward political reforms. Conservative critics in the Gulf have voiced concerns that the GCC will end up subsidizing a poor and economically vulnerable nation.
According to economist Yusuf Mansour, the GCC accounts for 18 percent of global oil production, 39 percent of oil exports, and 40 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. It had a GDP of $1.01 trillion with a GDP per capita of over $25,000 in 2010. It is an economic giant compared to Jordan, which, with little to no oil, has a GDP of $ 31billion, a per capita income of $5,000, and a national debt of nearly $16.2 billion or $ 2,700 per capita.
Of course the natural place to be for Jordanians is within the Mediterranean basin. This is where they feel more at home, but upheaval in Jordan's neighborhood (Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon) is making it difficult for these countries to come together and build their own economic coalition. The GGC, on the other hand, is politically aligned along the same values, and is economically homogenous. While Jordan may find ways to fit politically, being a moderate and stable Sunni monarchy, it will be a bit harder to hook up with the council's oil-based economies.
Still Jordan will not be an excess baggage on the backs of GCC economies. Its skilled labor contributes much more to these countries' economies than it takes out. With non-Arab foreign labor swarming the GCC, young and educated Jordanians would present a suitable alternative. Jordan itself remains a lucrative place for GCC investments, especially in the fields of tourism and general services. There is a silver lining for both sides.
Meanwhile, Jordanians are hoping that quick benefits will begin to be felt here at home. With turmoil playing havoc in most of the region, Jordan remains the safest destination for Gulf tourists and investors. Already there are signs that land prices are beginning to recover.
Like all marriages, if Jordan's joining the GCC can be described as such, there are risks and opportunities. And as it appears both parties are willing to take their chances. Coalitions have become more prevalent in our world. Nations are coming together even if they have no geographic and cultural links. Brazil, Russia, India and Turkey, China and most African countries, the majority of South Asian countries and most of European countries as well are finding ways to streamline their differences and enhance what they have in common.
Even though Jordan's path to full membership is long and arduous, the concept itself is sound. Jordan can offer a lot to the GCC while expecting to receive aid and investments. Jordanians are hard working and trustful and they already have a great track record in the Gulf. So coming together, even in small steps, should prove beneficial to all.
By Osama Al Sharif